H. Dean Rowe’s Museum Of Science and Industry (MOSI) in Tampa, desibuilt in 1978, was once a lonely outpost on Fletcher Avenue just before USF. Today it’s surrounded by strip commercial, and the museum itself has expanded. The original structure is now a science magnet school with a new museum and other institutional facilities, but Rowe’s original remarkable structure has stood the test of time and created a singular space in Florida.
The building itself is dominated by two very large space frame roofs. These are supported by cylindrical columns, some quite tall, that vary in length to allow the roof to fold down on its two long sides. Rowe’s original concept was to shape the air, thermally venting it up between the two space frames and out.
The roof planes are not massive but rather have delicacy about them. There’s something about the way the latticelike roof structure perches on the columns that is light, rather than heavy. It serves to de-emphasize the roof even though it is large and dominates the space around it.
Under this roof, a series of trays stack up – two on one side, and three on the other. The walls of these trays are infilled with concrete block, and all of this is left natural unpainted. The scale of the roof makes these components, in turn, seem human in scale. The softly curving ramp is a sculptural element at one end.
Exposed utility systems – ducts, conduits, pipes – crisscross and are painted different colors to highlight them, a la Pompidou Center. The building is, in fact, a subtle reference to this iconic Rogers & Piano museum.
Later, Antoine Predock added to the building, allowing Rowe’s original work to be converted to a school. Rowe’s museum was a terrifically hard builing to build an addition to. The way the roof slid over the building’s edges and captured vast amounts of space on either side must have been difficult to add to. The two buildings touch but do not have a public access between them, and the only experience of them together is the plaza on the south side.
Predock’s roof forms and natural concrete reference Rowe’s design, but are subtly different. Concrete corners in Predock’s are completely filled, rather than cut at 45 degree angles, a more difficult task for the workers but making the forms and shapes feel crisp. Predock used a lot of stainless steel for steps, wall, and roof material, a new material blending well with the other aesthetic.
Predock’s single expressive form is a sphere of blue curtainwall, which is partly peeled and layered, to house a movie theater. Occuring at one end of the structure, it provides a punch.
Unfortunately, every other addition since Predock has tended to dilute the power of the earlier work. There’s a one-story blue roof building that looks like a shopping center; a ropes course structure that looks like it came out of a catalog, and a few other structures that clump around the main building. Most stay a respectful distance.
Rowe’s structure is very, very simple in design, but hard for a viewer to grasp. It took a few simple rules and made very unique spaces, a singularity of design, and Predock’s museum doesn’t really make things any clearerl Like many of Rowe’s buildings, it references little in traditional architectural vocabulary, and instead creates its own completely. This is one of its great strengths. Only modern materials and technologies are used, and they are used to complete advantage: the space frame was invented to carry very large spans, and it does elegantly. Concrete was modernized to allow for unusual shapes and it has many; and the effect is a uncelebrated icon of twentieth century achievements. The fact that it is in Florida simply reinforces the West Coast experimentalism that started with the Sarasota School in the 1940s and extended into a new generation.
I wish they took better care of Rowe’s building, for it is full of dust and the walls are smeared with multicolored tropical mildew and goo. At its base, the building has acquired the accoutrements of public schools – plastic playground equipment, chain link fences, random locked storage units. It has the somewhat desultory air of a crashed airplane, its wings drooping over the landscape and reinhabited by innocent locals.
A lizard scampers through the dust. Somewhere above, flaps are being set to landing position.
The monolith has broken through its shell, blinking in the light. It eyes the world hungrily. Will you feed the monolith?
For those interested in the progress on Cement Works, here is an update.
2015 – A
9″ x 12″ x 1.5″
Quickcrete (stiff mix)
2015 – A is an experiment using found object (glass). It is cast into the concrete. Note the sworls and patterns within the larger surface field itself.
2015 – B
8″ x 21″ x 2″
Quickcrete – stiff – with light kit
2015 – C
7″ x 5″ x 1″
Quickcrete – stiff mix
2015 – D
10″ dia x 6″ high
Quickcrete mix (stiff) with bottlecaps
Cooper vacuumed these bottlecaps from Stardust in 2009 and saved them. The intent is to create a water fountain with an aquarium pump.
The main series of 6 pieces will get uncorked from its form over the next couple weeks. Please contact me if you would like to view any of these in person. Demand is high so a deposit is required on a piece to be delivered later this autumn.
March 2015 – On Virginia Drive in Audubon Park, a homeowner graciously donated old plywood sheathing. He already helpfully cut it into segments that were perfect to construct boxes for the concrete forms. This anonymous Orlando homeowner became an unwitting collaborator in this new art project.
By the time I found all this plywood, I had enlarged the idea and planned the project in a sort of “design development” phase with these drawings. They were definitive. A heavily textured, horizontally grooved surface modulates with a smoother and more monolithic surface. I wanted them large enough to have some presence, and be able to pour them in three lifts. I hope that each lift will seep down to the lift below and interact with it. Each set of 3 blocks will be poured in 3 lifts.
I want the lifts to be evident in the final product so I will loosen the form around the cement before pouring each upper lift, so that it seeps down the sides of the lift below. The purpose of this is to articulate, in cement, a 2x3x3 mathematics.
In my quest for the strategic incremental, I’ve created a few simple rules and then used these rules to make a specific event happen. A grooved, textured wall might be interrupted by a window, a smooth wall, or an embed. That’s the rule. It’s simple. The embed must be a hard thing – metal, or glass. That’s all.
In the 2x3x3 mathematics, there are 18 variations on this rule. As it turns out, the specific events have been tightly interlaced and follow one another in sequence. I suppose that’s inevitable when working in such a small spaces. As the old saying goes, it’s a game of inches.
The point is, that these drawings do not dictate the exact end product. Unlike architecture, which functions in the realm of the rational comprehensive, there is a lot more freedom in this way of thinking. The drawings act as only a rough guide. They’re the start.
The strategic incremental works really well with wide open eyes and ears. That is, it works when you are attuned to your surroundings. You can hear the voices outside your head, and see the things outside of your brain. These two activities seem less and less frequent these days. They’re really important. I’ve developed an ability – primitive, I must admit – to stay quiet and still, and sure enough I can see and hear the things that really matter.
In this case, after making these sketches, I started to sensitize myself to the things that would be needed to realize them in cement. Amazingly, bit by bit, the pieces have come to me, in a flow of materials that have appeared just at the exact right time. Each material has appeared just when it was needed. I had no premonition of the item beforehand; it was a case of totally being in the right place at the right time. I have therefore been able to take these, incorporate them into the cement works, and flow smoothy from drawing to concrete without spending money. Instead, I trust in the waste stream.
The half-inch plywood was suitably weathered and even had delicious organic white mold veined on one side. I turned this inside, anticipating its surface pattern on the concrete. The plywood was just on the verge of being too rotten and beat-up to use, so it was the perfect donation. The fact that I found it in this state – its first use complete, and its lifespan nearly over – just in time for constructing these forms was auspicious. This meant that the rest of the material for the cement works would follow the same pathway.
In fact, writing now in June, that is exactly how the last three months have worked out. Incorporating any kind of found material into art is in itself an art form. It has to do with being sensitive to the spirit of the material. Like most people, I navigate through a blinding blizzard of urgent commercialism, hurrying to and fro, occupying my time with meetings and messages and deadlines and just-in-time delivery of drawings, delivering and picking up children, tapping on laptops and worrying about hundreds of little things. In between, I can still hear the spirit of things, and these objects have come to me through listening carefully to their voices.
Oh, it’s about seeing them, too. The plywood slabs shouted loud – I only had to back up a few feet to get them into the car. They set the pace for the rest of the material I gathered across the next three months. I decided to build them upside down and pour into them from the bottom. Various boxes, collected over the years, became the top shapes. Their sizes didn’t much matter, as long as they worked together in the topology of the top. Strategic incremental.
After the forms were complete, a lull ensued in the voices. Not too many were heard. I hunted for foam. At a party, when asked what I was doing, I even said “at the present moment, looking for foam,” and it paid off – by verbalizing it, the material apparated somewhat thereafter. In the meantime, corrugated cardboard became form liner, and it represents the archeology of patience inside forms 1, 2, and 3. I continued with the project using a second-tier material until the foam arrived.
I knew I needed a lot of foam, and I didn’t really know what I was looking for. I was holding out for half-inch polyisocyanurate boards, blue if possible. I’ve been working with this stuff since the 1990s as an art material and know my way around it.
But then on my way down US 27 one morning, I spied it. First Foam, that was a great day. A styrofoam cooler of some size was on the side of the road, and it took about 5 minutes to make the two u-turns to harvest it off of the shoulder. After that, the foam continued to show up – more foam on US27, and then finally the roofing foam from a waste pile at a construction site.
The roofing foam came in late April. It was a hot day and I intentionally parked beside a scrap pile of steel, wood, pipe scraps and foam. The roofing foam was ordinary styrofoam and it had been sitting outside for months. The sheets were quite large, and when I shoved them into the car, they stank.
I had to drive with the seat way back, scrunched down under the foam panel over my head. I stopped to get gator jerky for Cooper – he had developed a taste for it after a trip to the Everglades. I looked Polk County, rumpled and covered with foam dust, in the store.
But the foam turned out to be perfect for the use that I needed, to line the interior. And finally, I tore the blue polyiso off of the wall and into the forms it all went. There’s a little bit leftover. When you’re working in strategic incremental, nothing should be precious. When you’re dealing with found objects, the energy of the particular object can be overpowering if you let it. Don’t let it. I didn’t, and am glad for it.
All the while, I was waiting and listening and looking for some kind of metal reinforcing material. Just a few streets down, out by the trash, two fine rolls of green-painted wire grid fencing were rolled up and are the perfect reinforcing. Didn’t even need to go back; by now I could see it and hear it and react smoothly in real time.
I worked with this stuff today. It snips and bends easily, is about 2″ x 3″ so it fits into the forms and will make great reinforcing. The leftover pieces are already inspiring smaller visions of found-object art; little versions of the reticulae and Michtam.
It is one thing to sketch out an idea and build a model of it. It is entirely another to build an inside-out model of the space surrounding the object. This remains the most difficult mental exercise yet encountered: looking at a sketch of an object, imagining the form that needs to be built to pour concrete to make something look like that sketch. It exercises a little-used part of my brain and I’ve gotten better at it, but not good enough yet. This is the part of my brain that needs to “build up a body of work” as Susan League challenged me to do. I’m still working on this.
But I did it, as best as I could. It could only take place in total quiet and removal of all distractions. It was like doing higher math without pencil or paper; or tusseling with a philosophy question. Once I could finally visualize the shape, getting it into foam was typically simple.
The interior abutting faces were never sketched, but I imagined that these would be a place to be a little freeform – hopefully making a positive/negative shape implying a certain fitting-into. This never really happened but what did happen was embeds. Yes, embedded into the concrete will be a couple other materials – opaque milky glass and metal.
I haven’t been as aggressive with voids in this series, partly because they are devilishly difficult to reinforce around and to pour around. There are voids around the place and they should work, but they are pretty straightforward. It is the surface I’m concerned about this time around.
The last reinforcing should go in and a pour will be announced for a weekend in late June. Many thanks to multiple homeowners and the bounty of a construction waste site for all the materials that flowed over to me during this process.